BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The Brunei December Festival is returning for its fifth year, but majority of the 50 events will be held online for the first time to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The month-long festival is aimed at promoting domestic tourism as the travel sector is still reeling from the impact of COVID-induced border closures.

Speaking at the COVID press briefing on Wednesday, the minister of primary resources and tourism (MPRT) said the government is focusing its strategy of ensuring tourism products and services in the country meet the demand of domestic visitors.

“If the tourism industry [continues] to be negatively affected due to the absence of foreign tourists, then it would cause a lot of people to lose jobs,” said YB Dato Hj Ali Apong.

The hard-hit travel and hospitality industry suffered from major revenue losses after tourist arrivals plummeted 81.3 percent last year due to COVID travel restrictions.

However, domestic tourism picked up with increased consumer spending and hotel occupancy rates at the end of last year when Brunei enjoyed zero local COVID transmissions.

Tourism providers are expected to face a tougher challenge in attracting domestic visitors this holiday season as the country is still recovering from its worst COVID outbreak, although cases have declined steadily in the past month.

To boost domestic tourism, the minister said MPRT will focus on promoting the local food of each district or village, similar to the “Selera Bruneiku” campaign launched last year.

This year’s scaled-down Brunei December Festival will feature 42 virtual events and eight in-person activities ranging from culture and arts, food, sports and recreation, shopping to digital technology.

Daily cases fall to lowest rate since August 8

Brunei added 18 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, dipping to the lowest daily infections since August 8 when the second wave began.

Two of the new cases were imported from Egypt, while one new cluster was detected at Nur Naziba Construction Kota Batu staff house.

During the press briefing, Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said public health control measures have been showing positive outcomes, in terms of containing the spread of the coronavirus during Brunei’s transition towards co-existing with COVID.

The sultanate has not reported a big spike in new infections despite lifting COVID movement curbs during its transition phase on November 19, including allowing fully vaccinated individuals to return to workplaces and perform Friday prayers at mosques.

While the number of cases increased 18 percent last week, the infection rate remains stable and there were fewer intensive care patients.

“What’s important is that during this transition to endemic phase, we want to make it a habit for people to take antigen rapid tests [ART],” the minister said, adding that it is encouraging to see families performing antigen tests before visiting their relatives.

Asked whether it is compulsory for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated workers to get certified COVID antigen test results, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said ART certification centres are meant to make it easier for employees to prove they have taken the test before entering workplaces.

“It doesn’t mean that all unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals have to get the [antigen test] certificate.

“If they can test themselves, or if the employers feel that it is sufficient for [their workers] to take the antigen tests at the office, then that’s fine,” he added.

All employees who have yet to complete their two-dose regimen are required to take antigen tests every two days.